3 documentaries about typography and typefaces

Let's take a look at the world of graphic design and typography through the cameras of documentary filmmakers and directors who, in recent years, have signed films that have been appreciated far beyond the narrow circle of professionals.



This is the first chapter of a trilogy dedicated to the world of design. The ambition of the director, Gary Hustwit, was to present to the general public the genesis, history and cultural, psychological and aesthetic impact of Helvetica, a typeface that millions of us all over the world have to deal with every day: in graphics on paper and on the web, in urban signage, in the logos of famous brands such as Jeep, The North Face, Toyota and Microsoft.

Released in 2007 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the creation of the font of the same name, "Helvetica" talks about the most widespread and best-known typeface. In addition to telling us its story, the film documents a passionate discussion with communication designers about their work, the creative processes and aesthetic choices behind the use of one font rather than another.

Created in 1957 from an idea of Max Miedinger for the Swiss Haas foundry, the font we all know today as Helvetica was first named Neue Haas Grotesk. In 1984 it was included in the system fonts of the Macintosh, ensuring a long life even in digital graphics.

"Helvetica" is an independent documentary, produced and directed by Gary Hustwit, which was able to speak to a rather wide audience, gaining a good success. So much so that the same director went on to investigate the world of design with two other documentary gems: "Objectified" and "Urbanized". The first documents the complex relationship with manufactured objects and, by extension, with the people who design them. In conceiving it, Gary Hustwit asked himself: what can we learn about who we are and who we want to be from the objects we surround ourselves with? "Urbanized," on the other hand, is a documentary focused on the design of cities: on the problems and strategies behind urban design that some of the world's leading architects, planners, policy makers, builders and thinkers must address to give us more livable, more beautiful and more sustainable urban areas.


The river is always right

This is the title of a documentary that director Silvio Soldini (known to the general public for the comedy "Bread and Tulips", awarded with the David di Donatello in 2000) presented in 2016 at the Biografilm Festival in Bologna, winning the Audience Award. It is a poetic documentary on the world of typography and restoration, through which the director tells us about the world of two artisan-artists, Alberto Casiraghi and Josef Weiss. The first, a publisher, aphorist and illustrator from Brianza, prints precious little books of poems and aphorisms with a movable type machine; the second is a graphic designer and restorer of antique books who lives in Canton Ticino.

"I entered on tiptoe - said Soldini - and I stood in a corner to observe them, to try to understand, to get to grasp the poetry of their gestures. The fascination for their work and the way they deal with it was the initial spring, but only by adjusting to their rhythm did I understand the strength of their relationship with life, which makes them extraordinary characters, in their apparently humble and profound humanity".

The Milanese director follows the everyday life of the two poets of the printing house in silence. He observes the care with which Josef folds paper and cardboard to make a book fit again, cuts and sews the paper and calibrates the colors for printing.It is a story made of details, which composes an elegy of manual skills, in which typography becomes an art form. The documentary succeeds in reconciling the individual typeface with its own history, which dates back to Gutenberg's invention of movable type printing (which we have already discussed here). The attention to the typeface becomes care for the position of the single syllables, and then of the single words that, just like in poetry, is never casual but constitutes the basis of the artistic-creative act.

The documentary alternates in a fluid and complementary way sequences filmed in the workshops of the two typographers, structuring itself like the folding and folding of a sheet of paper, showing first one side (the front) and then the other (the back). The soundtrack is also noteworthy, attentive to the micro-noises of the environment, the rustling of fingertips as they run across the paper and the clanking of the printing press.


Jonathan Hoefler: Typeface Design

The documentary (just over 40 minutes long) is part of the second season of "Abstract: The Art of Design," available on Netflix. Created by former "Wired USA" editor Scott Dadich, the "Abstract" series focuses on a range of design-related disciplines, each time taking on a major industry professional.

In the latest episode of the second season, we talk about typographic design with Jonathan Hoefler, founder of the digital foundry of the same name. In addition to the interview, the documentary contains some short lessons on the fundamentals of font design, the first of which gives us a smattering of one of the most fascinating tools available to a type designer: illusion. "Designing typefaces is a deception," Hoefler explains, giving us visual proof. "Even a simple goal like making all the letters the same size isn't easy. To make it look like the letters C and T are the same height, the C has to be taller."

Jonathan Hoefler (b. 1970 in New York City) says that growing up, it was the text in Gill Sans (a font created in 1928 by Eric Gill) used for custard boxes that led him to typographic design. Largely self-taught, he founded Hoefler Type Foundry at a very young age in 1989. Hoefler has designed typefaces for various magazines, such as Rolling Stone, Harper's Bazaar, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and Esquire, and for institutions such as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Perhaps his best known work is the Hoefler Text family of typefaces, designed for Apple Computer, now part of the Macintosh operating system.